Addressing homelessness in Saskatoon
- NC Raine | December 29, 2021
Every night since opening, a new shelter in Saskatoon has been at maximum capacity, with individuals needing beds sometimes waiting and keeping warm in the centre's front entrance.
Similarly, a mobile resource bus, providing access and guidance to information on supports and services around Saskatoon, has assisted over 90 people in its first four days.
For those running these important support centres, it is abundantly clear how great the need is for aid to those experiencing homelessness and poverty.
“We need more of this. We have seen what Residential School has done to our people, it has affected us through intergenerational trauma,” said Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) Chief Mark Arcand. “We don't have enough housing. We don't have enough supports. So, what happens when people come (from First Nations) to the cities? Then you add COVID on top of that, you add crystal meth and fentanyl on top of that. The need is great,” he said.
The new wellness centre, opened on December 15 and located at 145 1st Avenue North, was STC's response to the surge of homelessness in Saskatoon. The temporary centre is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and provides 50 beds, three meals a day, laundry services, Elders and counsellors, all on a drop-in, first-come-first-serve basis.
“Since night one, we've been at capacity. We have a waiting list with the people in the lobby. We are feeding them three meals a day, and really doing whatever we can to help,” said Arcand.
The wellness centre runs out of an empty, city-owned office building. City council voted in favour in early December to help fund the shelter at a cost of about $150,000.
As the facility serves families, Arcand said there are strict rules prohibiting the use of drugs, alcohol, or smoking in the centre. Those who break the rules will not be banned but asked to leave the facility temporarily.
Since opening, there have already been four overdoses at the facility. Fortunately, in all cases, staff has been able to intervene and get the appropriate medical attention for the individual. And, in all cases, the individual has been revived and returned to the wellness centre.
Despite the strict rules and focus on wellness, Arcand said it had been a struggle to find a location for the centre, with concerns being voiced largely from Saskatoon's downtown business community.
“There's been questions about the location. I tell people, we searched all over the city for four weeks to find a location. We checked warehouses, churches, no one would give us the facility. So, when the City of Saskatoon stepped up, we gladly accepted their offer,” said Arcand.
“Some people were concerned about it being a business area. People are saying, 'I want to help, but not in my backyard.' I keep telling people, ‘Which backyard then? You pick a backyard, and we'll do the work’.”
The Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. (CUMFI) are taking a slightly different approach to helping combat homelessness. Their Mobile Housing and Community Resource Centre is a converted recreational vehicle where case managers can link individuals in need to services, as well as area where individuals can use laptops to apply to apply for assistance or book appointments.
The mobile resource centre was sparked years ago after CUMFI President Shirley Isbister participated in a Sanctum Survivor challenge, and experienced firsthand how much walking around and waiting vulnerable people experience to access health services.
“A lot of time, you'll go somewhere and be told 'we can't do that. Go to the next place,' and then they can't do that either. The life of a homeless person is a lot of walking and waiting. And so, we're hoping that the resource centre will lessen that,” said Isbister.
The mobile centre is intended to act as a one-stop resource that will help any vulnerable person connect with whatever they may need, be it health services, food, shelter, addictions or mental health services, employment, or whatever else they may need, said Isbister.
The mobile centre is operating year round, from 9:00am to 3:30pm, Monday to Thursday. The project was funded with about $450,000 from the federal Reaching Home program. The mobile unit will be strategically parked around town at the FreschCo on 33rd Street West, City Centre Church on 20th Street West, Westgate Plaza on 22nd, and Giant Tiger on 22nd Street West.
Isbister said there has been an overwhelming positive response from the community, who are thankful to have someone walk them through often complicated procedures. The challenge so far is privacy. Space in the mobile unit is limited, and cases often involve personal matters, sometimes of which take two or three hours to sort through, she said.
“I think seeing over 90 people in four days shows just how much of a need there is in our city not only to direct people to services but to access those services,” said Isbister.
“There are so many challenges that people in our community run into, challenges most people aren't aware of. I think the bus is going to be a great asset in the community, and it's already shown that.”